The pagan sacrament: Venus and Eros in C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces.
Lewis had long been fascinated by the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the earliest version of which appears in The Golden Ass, written in Latin by Apuleius (born c. 125 CE), but it was only relatively late in life that Lewis hit upon the idea of retelling the story as a novel featuring one of Psyche's sisters as an unreliable narrator. (Given the story's supernatural elements, it might better be called a romance or even magical realism.) The immediate problem that confronts the contemporary reader is that the story assumes a general familiarity with the source myth. That is, Lewis's narrative assumes not only that the events of the Cupid and Psyche myth actually occur alongside the realistic narrative, but also that readers will pick up on the many hints dropped by the narrator that she is unwittingly playing out the story of Cupid and Psyche. Thomas Howard remarks on the perspective of the reader, suggesting that "technically speaking we know no more than [Orual] does. We are getting all our facts from her. This is her narrative" (231-32). But surely Lewis expected his readers to approach the novel with the source myth already in mind.
From the moment Orual and Bardia discover the empty chains on the mountain, we know exactly what has really happened to Psyche. Indeed, we should know what will happen to her the moment she is introduced by the name Psyche as an infant. Perhaps sensing that his narrative techniques made the mythical plot too obscure for some readers, Lewis appended a note to the American edition of Till We Have Faces briefly summarizing the salient parts of the myth (though not altogether accurately). (1) It is natural, then, that recent interpretations of Till We Have Faces have focused mainly on Orual's character development, though often to the neglect of the mythic story underlying the realistic narrative. (2) Furthermore, critics have struggled to relate the novel to Lewis's voluminous prose writings, many of which touch on the themes of the novel--love, knowledge, faith, reason, and miracles, to name a few.
Recently, Paulette Sauders and Doris Myers have pointed out significant parallels between Till We Have Faces and The Four Loves, (3) which was published four years after the novel. Both Sauders and Myers focus on the loves between the novel's human characters; neither recognizes the extent to which The Four Loves also elucidates the deities in the novel. The Four Loves begins with a distinction between what Lewis calls "need-love" and "gift-love." In Lewis's language, need-love is characterized by desire for personal gratification, often at the expense of another person, whereas gift-love is characterized by the giving of oneself and one's resources to meet the needs of others. There follows one chapter on each of the four Greek words often translated into English as "love": storge, or familial affection; philia, or friendship; eras, or erotic love; and agape, or divine, benevolent love. At the beginning of his chapter on eros, Lewis introduces his readers to the mythical vocabulary in which he proceeds to discuss erotic love. He distinguishes between what he calls "Eros," or the emotionally-charged feelings of attraction between the lover and the beloved, and "Venus," or the sexual act in itself, which he playfully refers to as "the pagan sacrament" (131-32, 139, 145). Lewis has no reservations about mixing a Greek mythical name (Eros) with a Latin one (Venus); and, he remarks that, in using these names, he is "following an old usage" (131). Lewis also points out that "to the evolutionist Eros (the human variation) will be something that grows out of Venus, a late complication and development of the immemorial biological impulse" (133). That is, Lewis understood that in the evolutionary history of humanity, the sex drive is assumed to have come first, while romantic attraction arose much later in history. He does not question this evolutionary relationship between Venus and Eros; he only cautions that, in an individual. Eros usually comes before Venus, if Venus enters into the question at all. Lewis knew well enough that Eros is the mythical son of Venus, and he will not dispute the current scientific opinion that seems to verify the dynamics explained by the myth.
Seen through the lens of such vocabulary, the deities in Till We Have Faces take on new significance. In addition to being a literal god and goddess in the novel, Eros and Venus archetypally represent romantic attraction and the sex act, respectively. Early in the novel, the Fox explicitly identifies the local goddess Ungit with Aphrodite, or Venus, remarking that she seems more like the Babylonian Ishtar than the more refined Greek deity (Lewis 8). (I will use the names Ungit and Venus interchangeably hereafter.) Ungit's son, who is never given a proper name, but who is known through various epithets as "the god of the mountain" or "the Shadowbrute," is clearly Cupid, or Eros. In the kingdom of Glome, Ungit is worshiped as a fertility goddess responsible for the growth of crops and the begetting of children, but her son is more mysterious. He is known to the people of Glome only as an avenging spirit; and, he is sometimes conflated with Ungit, even by her own priest, who announces to the king that "the Brute is, in a mystery, Ungit herself or Ungit's son, the god of the Mountain; or both" (48). Later, when the Fox challenges the logic of his statements about the gods, the priest replies,
"I ... have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood." (50)
Orual overhears the conversation; and many years later, when she challenges the gods directly at the end of her book, she echoes the priest's statement, asking, "why must holy places be dark places?" (249). She is right to question the old priest's description of the gods, if not the gods themselves. The fact that the myth of which the novel is a retelling can be neatly summarized in an appended note suggests that the gods and their motivations, though mysterious to the novel's characters, are not nearly as inscrutable as the priest thinks. Eros must hide his face, even from his wife Psyche, because he fears his mother Venus's displeasure. From the perspective of the characters in the story, the priest's assertion is accurate enough, but the statement is not the interpretive center of the novel.
Perhaps because the priest warns that the gods cannot be discussed in clear statements, most critics of the novel have had very little to say about the deities in themselves, much less about their archetypal significance. In an early assessment of the novel's deities, Jean Marie Chard briefly suggests parallels with Egyptian, Greek, and Sufi narratives (15-18). The most thorough reading of the novel to date, Myers's book Bareface, though admirable in many ways, only hints at the crucial role that Venus and Eros really play in the novel. Myers once refers to Ungit as "raw sexuality" (Bareface 4), but does not develop the point. She does, however, explain that Ungit is "a chthonic, or earth, goddess," and she unpacks the fertility symbolism of Ungit's egg-shaped temple--naturally, the priest who emerges from the egg wears a bird mask, perhaps to parallel the winged Cupid hatching from the cosmic egg in a Greek creation story--but Myers does not connect this symbolism to any major plot details or characterizations (Bareface 207-09). Myers acknowledges that, in Apuleius's version, Venus is angry at Cupid's surreptitious marriage to her rival Psyche, but Myers never really acknowledges that this crucial conflict--a real rivalry between real divinities--underlies Lewis's whole plot.
The existence of the gods as supernatural persons comes as a shock to Orual. After she has convinced Psyche to betray the trust of her husband, Orual momentarily finds herself face to face with a deity whom she describes as "something like a man" (172). With a look at Orual, the god indicates that "he rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot change the past. But is this true? He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche's lover was a god" (173). Finally, the god turns to Orual and addresses her without anger: "Now Psyche goes out in exile. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche" (174). As critics like Myers and Rowe severally point out. Orual "becomes" Psyche in the sense that she comes to have a pure soul, or psyche, like that of her sister; Orual's self-imposed ordeals parallel the ordeals imposed on Psyche by Venus. However, the god has also announced that he is now powerless to defend Psyche from powers greater than himself: most of all, his mother Venus. Here, Lewis assumes that readers will recall that, in the myth, Venus demands Psyche's punishment because she is jealous that many people have begun to worship Psyche instead of Venus. Neither Psyche nor Orual can guess why the happiness of Psyche's marriage is contingent on its being kept a secret. Orual cannot comprehend what readers should see at once: the gods of legend are not only alive to the human characters, but their motives and actions are generally explicable in hindsight.
Eros and Venus act both as literal characters and as archetypal signifiers. Venus embodies the irrational jealousy that arises from the sexual act --she becomes the archetypal mother-in-law in the process--while Eros embodies the ardent desire of one person for another. That is, the deities in the novel are not allegories but archetypes, figures who play out particular sets of universal human experiences. (4) Although the deities' archetypal significances are concealed from most of the characters, Orual intuits the mythical nature of Venus better than she knows. In one of Orual's dreams at the end of the novel, the Fox reminds her that "All ... are born into the house of Ungit. And all must get free from her" (301). Peter Schakel interprets the passage by equating Ungit with possessiveness (83), by which he seems to mean familial affection gone bad, as Lewis describes it in The Four Loves. (5) But the Fox's statement suggests two layers of meaning, not just one. First, as The Four Loves reminds us, Venus is Lewis's name for the sexual act; and, taken that way, the Fox indicates that all humans are born of sexual intercourse and that we must learn to control and transcend our own animal sexuality. Then, as Schakel suggests, we are also jealous and possessive of those we love, but we must learn to love altruistically.
In the same dream, the Fox also remarks that "nothing is yet in its true form" (305), a statement that suggests to many readers that the novel should be understood to advance a pre-Christian Christianity. Venus and Eros are supposed by many to be thinly veiled figures of the true God, (6) much like Aslan in Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. But neither Venus nor Eros is God, even in a veiled form. The characters will not come to know them by another name, as the children at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader come to know Aslan by another name in their own world (216). Venus and Eros are a goddess and a god; and in The Four Loves, Lewis reminds us that they both have a dark, demonic side. As we know from Sappho and Catullus, the erotic passion for a person just out of reach is all-consuming for the lover. Near the beginning of The Four Loves, Lewis approvingly refers to Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, in which Rougemont asserts that, before Christianity, death was the only escape from servitude to Eros for anyone under that god's control:
Thus Eros could lead him but to death. But a man who believes the revelation of Agape suddenly beholds the circle broken: faith delivers him from natural religion. Now he may hope for something else; he is aware that there is some other release from sin. And thereupon Eros in turn has been relieved of his fatal office and delivered from his fate. In ceasing to be a god, he ceases to be a demon. And he finds his proper place in the provisional economy of Creation and of what is human. (321)
Rougemont, however, writes with the advent of Christianity as a past event, whereas Orual must grapple with Venus and Eros while their redemption has not yet occurred. Lewis, moreover, reminds us in The Four Loves that the inverse of Rougemont's statement is also true: Eros "begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god" (17).
Thus, Orual's general disgust both with the gods and with human appetite, sexuality in particular, is not altogether unwarranted. She is emotionally scarred when she first becomes aware of the pagan sacrament by watching her new step-mother, a frail, terrified girl barely older than Orual herself, borne into her father's bedchamber while she and the other girls attempt to sing a wedding song in Greek. Later, on the eve of Psyche's sacrifice, Psyche reflects on her mother's death, suggesting that there may not be much of a difference between being married and being eaten. In The Four Loves, Lewis offers a more playful connection between sexuality and eating, saying that the lover wishes to possess not something that the beloved can give, but the beloved himself or herself: "Lovers themselves are trying to express part of it (not much) when they say they would like to 'eat' one another" (136). But even from Psyche's perspective, the prospect of being married, and therefore eaten, looks very grim. She understands that her father has, in a sense, consumed her mother, and that, absent her being sacrificed to the Shadowbrute, she would be liable to a similar fate. Were she to live in the palace much longer, she would soon be married off to a stranger in some other kingdom in order to make a political alliance. Marriage promises no happiness to Psyche.
Orual displays disgust at both the eating and sexuality. After her duel with prince Argan, she invites her new allies to a feast at the palace: "That night's banquet was the first I had ever been at and the last I ever sat through," she remarks. "I had never seen men at their pleasures before: the gobbling, snatching, belching, hiccuping, the greasiness of it all, the bones thrown on the floor, the dogs quarreling under our feet. Were all men such?" (223-24). She is, in general, disquieted by human appetite, whether culinary or sexual. She even associates the duel itself with sexuality, saying after she has killed her opponent, "I felt myself changed too, as if something had been taken away from me. I have often wondered if women feel like that when they lose their virginity" (220). Furthermore, as Myers persuasively argues, Orual's reign as queen is marked by a persistent struggle against Venus; she contrives to reduce the temple's political influence, and she self-consciously represses her own sexual desire for her general, Bardia (Bareface 105). Myers points out that Orual associates the distinctive smell of Ungit's house with sex, hence Orual's visceral aversions to both sex and her country's religion (C. S. Lewis 197-98, 207), which are of course related in other ways as well.
Orual is particularly outraged at the thought of Psyche partaking of the pagan sacrament--and enjoying it! When Orual first speaks with Psyche on the mountain, she sees Psyche dressed in rags, apparently wandering the desolate mountain alone, whereas Psyche sees a palace built for her by her mysterious husband, who comes to her only at night and leaves before dawn. Orual insists that Psyche is hallucinating and tries to persuade her to return with her, but Psyche dismisses the idea:
"But, Orual--think. How can I go back? This is my home. I am a wife."
"Wife! Of what?" said I, shuddering.
"If you only knew him," she said.
"You like it! Oh, Psyche!" (125)
Orual is dismayed by the idea of Psyche's enjoyment, not of "him," her husband as a person, but of "it," the sexual act itself. In The Four Loves, Lewis points out that "sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself, Eros wants the Beloved" (134). It is precisely this distinction between Venus and Eros that Orual cannot understand. She conflates Eros and Venus, assuming that, if Psyche loves Eros, then she must also love the act for which Venus stands. Orual cannot fathom that Psyche loves her husband as a person. The irony is that Venus as a character is for the moment unaware that her son and her rival are nightly partaking of her own sacrament.
In their second conversation on the mountain, Orual tries to persuade her sister that she is wrong about her husband. Psyche merely replies,
"I am his wife. I know."
"How can you know if you have never seen him?"
"Orual, how can you be so simple? I--how could I not know?"
"But how, Psyche?"
"What am I to answer to such a question? It's not fitting ... it is ... and especially to you, Sister, who are a virgin." (161-62)
Here, Lewis plays on various concepts of knowledge. Psyche knows her husband intimately because she has known him carnally, but that field of knowledge is inaccessible to Orual, who is a virgin. Evidently, both Psyche and Orual are too embarrassed to discuss sex openly, but for quite different reasons. Psyche does not wish to speak openly with her naive sister about her sexual intimacy with her husband, whereas Orual finds the idea of sex itself to be repugnant; and she is doubly shocked that her pure little sister--whom she thinks of as her daughter--has become sexually active at all. Moreover, Orual is horrified that Psyche may have coupled with a mere commoner, for their traditions hold the royal family to be the descendents of the gods, and it is sacrilegious for a royal person to mix sexually with anyone who is not also descended from the gods. Orual does not see the irony of her suspicion, for Psyche married up, not down.
In general, critics such as Sauders and Schakel have ignored these exchanges, even though the dialogue plays on the archetypal myth of Venus and Eros that underlies the whole story. Even Myers, whose analysis of these scenes is otherwise thorough, passes over all references that the characters make to sex (Bareface 74-75). Myers does, however, note that the Fox calls Orual "Maia," which is the name of the Earth-mother goddess sometimes identified with Venus; so, when Orual admits later in a dream, "I am Ungit," Myers suggests that her statement "has historical as well as psychological truth" (Bareface 167). She is a mother figure, first to her household, especially after her father's death, and eventually to her whole kingdom. She is also, like Venus, deeply jealous of the affections of those nearest her, and she is glad to deprive them of their happiness for her own gratification.
When Orual happens upon a new temple during her travels and hears the sacred story about the new goddess Psyche, she complains that the gods have altered the story in order to incriminate her. The sacred story she hears follows Apuleius, Lewis's classical source, pretty closely, and the priest says explicitly that Cupid is forced to conceal Psyche because of the jealousy of Venus (242). When Orual questions the priest closely about the motives of the sisters in the story, the priest answers that "they were jealous. Her husband and her house were so much finer than theirs" (244). In Apuleius, the sisters are married to old men; and when Psyche tells them that her husband is a healthy young man and implies that she enjoys sexual pleasure with him each night, they are jealous of her sexual fulfillment as much as of her riches. (7) Lewis's version downplays the sexual jealousy but does not eliminate it altogether. Whereas the sisters in Apuleius are merely jealous, Orual is truly envious; she is offended that Psyche enjoys anything at all--but especially sex--outside of Orual's control.
At the end of the novel, Orual has only begun to understand her own motives, and she is beginning to accept the inscrutability of the gods. In one of her dreams, the Fox admits that his skepticism about the gods was unwarranted, saying "the Priest knew at least that there must be sacrifices. They will have sacrifice--will have man. Yes, and the very heart, center, ground, roots of a man; dark and strong and costly as blood. ... I made [Orual] think that a prattle of maxims would do, all thin and clear as water" (295). It is tempting to take what the Fox says as an authorial cue to consider the old priest the moral center of the novel. Yet, the Fox's self-deprecation must be balanced by Psyche's praise of the Fox earlier in the story. On the eve of her sacrifice, Psyche is possessed of a strange calm, and she is confident that, despite the skepticism of the Fox, she is indeed going to be married to a god. She tells Orual, "I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn't the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It'd be dark as a dungeon within me but for his teaching. And yet..." (70). Even before she experiences the gods directly, Psyche intuits that neither the priest's chthonic religion nor the Fox's Stoic rationalism can quite explain the nature of the gods. It is not a matter of pitting faith against philosophy, or religion against reason, as both the priest and the Fox tend to do. (8) Evan Gibson points out that the priest and the Fox present a false dilemma, and that Lewis elsewhere classifies religions as either "thick," i.e. mystical, or "clear," i.e. ethical, arguing that Christianity has elements of both (Gibson 235). While Orual tends to side with the Fox, she comes to understand that Psyche's knowledge of the god of the mountain transcends both Greek philosophy and the local fertility cult.
Furthermore, in a prefatory note to the British edition of the novel, Lewis himself identifies one theme of the novel as "dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and with vision ... (qtd. in Gibson 276n1). As the story unfolds, Psyche proves to have better knowledge of the gods than either the Fox or the priest, and she judges their limitations accurately. In Orual's final dream, the Fox reminds her that "this age of ours will one day be the distant past. And the Divine Nature can change the past. Nothing is yet in its true form" (305). Blood sacrifices, frequently associated with both eating and sex, are a dim image of the seemingly irrational demands that a deity like Eros makes on the affections of a human like Psyche. They also bear a distant relationship to the advent of Christianity, with its sacrifice to end all sacrifices and the concomitant demand for the absolute loyalty of its followers, not to mention the mystical language surrounding the Eucharist and the Beatific Vision. And even if Psyche has, in her marriage to Eros, achieved a reconciliation of body and soul akin to that which Christianity promises in the doctrine of the Resurrection, that reconciliation remains concealed from Orual. If she dies having made peace with Eros, she has not come to terms with Venus.
Yet, the Fox's statement that "nothing is yet in its true form" has encouraged critics to identify the deities in the novel with Christian figures. (9) W. D. Norwood, for example, suggests that Ungit is one face of the true God, claiming "she is God in his aspect of Love" (255). Norwood acknowledges that "in this pagan representation even this single aspect is seen only 'as through a glass darkly"' (255); yet, he proceeds to make an unqualified argument that Ungit represents both eras and agape (257) and that Ungit is finally "a true image of Christian Love" (259). On the contrary, there is nothing about Ungit in the novel, let alone Apuleius's myth, that suggests agape love. Ungit is jealous of Psyche; so, she sends drought, famine, and plague in revenge. She then demands human sacrifice. Though her son protects Psyche for a time, Ungit again takes her revenge, this time by heaping seemingly impossible tasks on her daughter-in-law. The fact that neither Psyche nor Orual can comprehend Ungit is no proof of her benevolence, for there are mysteries of evil as well as of good. In short. Norwood sustains the argument only by completely ignoring the mythical story on which the novel is based. Furthermore, while Norwood claims that Ungit is one aspect of the Christian God, it must be pointed out that God really has no aspect of love in orthodox theology, for love is central to God's total identity. Eros, the son of Venus, may in some respects prove analogous to the Christian God in that the language of erotic love is often used metaphorically to describe divine love, but in the story he, too, remains Eros for better or worse.
Like Norwood, Thomas Watson falls into the trap of identifying the deities in the novel too closely with the Christian God, and he goes so far as to claim not only that "Lewis's Christian readers are meant to recognize Eros as Christ," but also that "Ungit-Aphrodite would in her role as Shadowbrute-Eros's mother correspond to a manifestation of the Virgin Mary in the Christian dispensation" (170). As much as readers like Norwood and Watson wish to see Christological overtones in the gods, the actual behavior of the gods, and especially Venus, makes these identifications hard to sustain when considering the details of the story. The Virgin Mary, as the human mother of God, may well be an inversion of Venus, the divine mother of Eros, but Christ and Eros remain vastly distant from each other in detail. In Orual's final vision at the end of the novel, a mystical vision of herself and Psyche, the god has judged her mercifully, and Orual feels that her complaint has been answered. So, like Christ, Eros judges mercifully, but not because he has suffered vicariously for Orual. Rather, Psyche and Orual have borne each other's burdens; in a sense, they have redeemed each other. (10) Typological resonances between Eros and Christ are not new to Christianity, having been introduced as early as Augustine's Confessions (11) and perhaps earlier, but the attempt to link them closely in Lewis's novel is successful only insofar as the details of the story are ignored.
Karen Rowe takes the mythic story more seriously, but her symbolic reading of Ungit and the Shadowbrute also tends to overlook plot details. She suggests, for example, that "though the physical description of Ungit is a shapeless, faceless stone, the living essence of her is the priest who links the human with the divine" (150). From Orual's perspective, this is quite true; yet, the essence of the goddess transcends both her temple and her priest. Indeed, if her essence can be seen in any event or figure in the story, it is in the chillingly banal sexual act between an old king and a young queen that begets Psyche. To her credit, Rowe points out the doubling of Orual's identity with both Venus and Psyche, but Rowe extends the story's parallels to the point of conflating the characters' identities. She is right to point out that "the answer to Orual's struggle to have a proper love is in the author of love, the figure of Cupid and Psyche's sacred lover in the novel," but she also suggests that "Orual is granted the relationship which Psyche has with the god himself' (152-53). On the contrary, although Orual has accepted the inscrutability of the gods at the end of her life, her relationship to Eros is not identical with her sister's. Their paths to reconciliation are closely paralleled, but Psyche has known Eros carnally, and Orual has not.
In Orual's first dream-vision, in which she makes her formal complaint against the gods, the Fox appears and speaks to the court on her behalf: "I am to blame for this," he says, for "I taught her to say 'Lies of poets,' and 'Ungit's a false image.' ... I never said, Too true an image of the demon within. And then the other face of Ungit (she has a thousand). .. something live anyway. And the real gods more alive. Neither they nor Ungit mere thoughts or words" (295). Here the Fox points out two crucial truths about the gods. First, they have a demonic side in that they embody inordinate human desires. Ungit is, according to him, an "image of the demon within" (295). Second, there are "real gods more alive" than either Ungit or her son. That is, Ungit and her son are real gods, but they are not the true God. Furthermore, Orual has brought her complaint against Ungit, not against the "real gods"; and at the end of her complaint, she finds that she has only accused herself. The shadowy judge answers that, if the gods accuse her, "a greater judge and a more excellent court must try the case" (296).
Thus, Lewis acknowledges both the typological relationship and the vast difference between the gods of myth and the true God. Orual is reconciled with the former, but is only becoming dimly aware of the latter. In her final vision, she meets Psyche, and she finds her own face beautiful. She hears the declaration of the god: "You also are Psyche" (308). At the very end of the novel, then. Psyche has been reunited with Eros and has been given immortality, whereas Orual dies having conquered her overwhelming hatred of the gods. She is reconciled to Eros, and she has regained her face, though she has not seen his face.
Lionel Adey's criticism is helpful here. Adey notes the potentially allegorical elements of the novel, with "Glome representing humanity, Psyche the human soul and precursor of Christ offered to the god of love, their union the condition of human happiness of well-being" (155). This is, indeed, very similar to the conventional, Platonic interpretation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in later antiquity. However, Adey objects to Lewis's use of the myth on two points. First, if Cupid signifies Christ, then it makes no sense that Psyche, representing the Soul, is forbidden to see her husband. In Christianity, Adey argues, there is no such injunction "either on Earth where she cannot or in heaven where she forever will" see his face (160). Second, Adey thinks it implausible that Eros should be portrayed as the son of Venus, a familial relationship that seems very different from the Father God begetting the Son (160). Indeed, as Adey observes, such identifications become less tenable the more the novel's plot is considered in detail. He is wrong, though, to assume that the novel must necessarily be read Christologically at all. Eros need not represent Christ, and the novel makes more sense thematically if he represents not Christ but erotic love.
IT must be admitted that Lewis himself helped create this problem by anachronistically introducing into his novel an Eros that, according to Lewis's own account, did not exist in the second or third century BCE when the novel is set. Till We Have Faces depicts Eros as an essentially heroic figure who attempts to shield Psyche from his mother's wrath, and the effects of Eros--of being in love--on Psyche are altogether positive. After she weds the god, she appears vigorous and healthy, and she speaks with clarity and confidence, albeit discreetly at times. This was not, however, the accepted view of Eros in the Hellenic world. In his first scholarly book, The Allegory of Love, Lewis had argued that "in ancient literature love seldom rises above the levels of merry sensuality or domestic comfort, except to be treated as a tragic madness ... which plunges otherwise sane people (usually women) into crime and disgrace. Such is the love of Medea, of Phaedra, of Dido; and such the love from which maidens pray that the gods may protect them" (4). There is, moreover, nothing admirable or ennobling about being in love in the Greco-Roman world. Catullus and Ovid consistently display Eros as a mad obsession almost inevitably leading to grief (5-6). It was only later, Lewis contends, during the decline of the Roman Empire when Stoicism and Christianity contended for the ailing soul of the West, that allegorical descriptions of the soul made possible the altogether novel idea of ennobling eras in the early Middle Ages, which Lewis treats at length in his chapter on allegory (44-111). Hence, the Eros of Till We Have Faces is much more medieval than pagan, and he inevitably carries with him into Lewis's novel the medieval tendency to think of eros as a step on the ladder to agape.
Nevertheless, in The Four Loves, Lewis cautions against doing in real life exactly what first Psyche, and finally Orual, must do in the novel: obey the voice of Eros. Lewis warns,
It is in the grandeur of Eros that the seeds of danger are concealed. He has spoken like a god. His total commitment, his reckless disregard of happiness, his transcendence of self-regard, sound like a message from the eternal world. And yet it cannot, just as it stands, be the voice of God himself. For Eros, speaking with that very grandeur and displaying that very transcendence of self, may urge to evil as well as to good. (150)
The Eros of the novel does not, in fact, urge anybody to do evil, though it certainly seems so to Orual. But in the final analysis, Lewis insists in The Four Loves that the relationship between Eros and God is only analogical: "We must not give unconditional obedience to the voice of Eros when he speaks most like a god. Neither must we ignore or attempt to deny the godlike quality.... His total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man" (153). Eros demands an allegiance that a Christian owes only to God.
Lewis was well aware that, although there were strong continuities between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity, there were also decisive breaks between them. The dominance of Christianity entailed the demotion of all the gods, not only Venus and Eros, but Psyche herself--and Lewis reminds us in The Allegory of Love that it was the Stoics, on whom he modeled the Fox, who especially elevated Psyche, the human soul, to divinity. Although Till We Have Faces is Lewis's most mature work of fiction, its depiction of the pagan gods evidently remains unsatisfactory to many readers who prefer either obvious typology or unequivocal allegory. What Lewis offers, however, is a numinous story in which the motives and even the identities of the deities remain wholly mysterious to the characters, while quite evident to the readers. In the novel's final chapters, the story comes to resemble the book of Job; for, in both stories, the readers are let in on the reasons for characters' sufferings, yet those reasons are never fully revealed to the characters. Lewis did not often engage Job in his other works, and even The Problem of Pain barely mentions Job (12); but here in his last novel, Lewis presents us with a character who (she thinks) loses those dearest to her and then, out of her pain, demands an answer from the divine. In the end, Job and Orual are both granted visions of the divine in which their questions and protests fall silent, and both hastily retract their complaints. As Orual admits, "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away" (308). To encounter the divine utterly changes one's perspective and priorities; it is a familiar theme in mystical literature, though it is unfamiliar to many modern readers, even those generally friendly to religion. Yet, Orual's vision of Eros is not the Beatific Vision of God. Eros may not be as brutish as the name "Shadowbrute" suggests, but he is surely as shadowy. He is no less than a shadow of the Christian God. but also no more than a shadow --a figure that derives its shape as much from the negative as from the positive. The story of Eros and Psyche may indeed be what Lewis called in Mere Christianity a "good dream," a mysterious hint at a reality to come that is given to a pagan world (50); but as Orual comes to understand it, the vision remains, both literally and figuratively, a dream.
1) Lewis's summary, for example, makes Cupid responsible for the deaths of Psyche's evil sisters, but in Apuleius's tale, Psyche herself visits her sisters and tricks them into committing suicide, thereby taking just vengeance on them. In composing his summary, Lewis may have been relying more on memory than on the text of The Golden Ass.
2) Many readings of the novel deal primarily or solely with Orual's quest for self-knowledge, reading the first-person narrative variously through Abraham Maslow (Bartlett), Rowan Williams (Jebb), Mikhail Bakhtin (Lukens), Simone Weil (Arnell), and Paul Ricoeur (Donaldson).
3) Myers focuses on the novel's depiction of starve, or familial affection, while Sauders emphasizes the role of philia, or friendship, in the story. Both agree that as Orual tells her story, she comes to recognize the extent of her self-centeredness and her inability to love altruistically as she ought, though neither deals at any length with Venus or Eros.
4) Lewis was manifestly interested in Jungian archetypes, but few critics have observed his use of them in Till We Have Faces, though Joe Christopher and Kath Filmer (39) are notable exceptions.
5) See 60-66 and especially 72.
6) See Schakel 84, Norwood 255-59, and Watson 169-70.
7) English renditions of Apuleius vary in their treatment of the sisters' motives. William Adlington's sixteenth-century translation is frank about the sisters' sexual jealousy, but Robert Graves's 1951 translation only hints at it. Lewis could, of course, have read it in the original Latin.
8) Clyde Kilby (171. 179) and Don Elgin (98) think the novel elevates the priest over the philosopher. However, Steve J. Van Der Weele (187) and Chad Walsh (119) argue that the novel exposes the shortcomings of both.
9) The most obvious Christ-figure in the novel is Psyche herself, as both Chad Walsh (164) and Sharon Jebb (119) observe. Psyche is worshiped by the people of Glome, said to possess healing power, and sacrificed on a mountain by being attached to a dead tree. The tree especially invites Christological comparisons, since it is Lewis's own addition to the story. In Apuleius, Psyche is merely exposed on a rocky cliff. In a letter, Lewis states that Psyche is "an instance of the anima natural iter Christiana [naturally Christian soul]. ... She is in some ways like Christ not because she is a symbol of Him but because every good man or woman is like Christ. What else could they be like?" ("Letter" 462). Despite Lewis's demurral, the novel itself suggests more than accidental parallels, many of which Evan Gibson helpfully catalogs (242-43). Psyche and Christ are also mirror images in that Psyche is a woman who becomes a goddess, and Christ is God who becomes a man.
10) Several readers have pointed out that Orual and Psyche have shared each other's burdens according to "the way of exchange," a principle articulated by Charles Williams in which suffering in one person can be literally transferred to another person who is willing to bear it. It was no mere literary device, either to Williams or to Lewis. Lewis himself claimed that he was able to carry the pain of his wife's cancer for a time (see Gibson 253).
11) See 9.2 and 10.7 especially.
12) See 87n.
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|Author:||Schuler, Stephen J.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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